Greetings from Chicago, Home of the Spit-Take

Today is the first day in 13 that I’ve been able to sit down in the morning in my office and write. If allergies don’t seal my eyes shut in the next 2 hours, I might manage to get a little writing done today. Then at noon, it’s time for more errands and getting ready to camp with the Boy Scouts in the rain. This is one of the big downsides to being self-employed, trying to manage your own time, all day every day. I’ve been doing it for 21 years. Sometimes I’m good at it, other times all the activities and obligations get thrown into a big bucket of slop that must be taken care of immediately. Of course, it takes energy to compartmentalize and prioritize, and sometimes it’s hard to find. (I think the first time I ever heard the word “compartmentalize”, it was being used by Bill Clinton to describe how he kept working when he was being impeached for a pugwash by a fat slag from Beverly Hills. While a regular person might feel mortified by what was going on, for Bubba apparently, it was just background noise.) For all you out there with 9-to-5 jobs, be aware that while a regular structure may at times feel constricting, it makes a lot of other things easier.

But it’s been a good fortnight, all in all. My brother and his family visited us from New Jersey, their first visit here in at least 12 years, and we got to show off the Windy City that we love so much. Hancock Building, Michigan Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Cubs game, the museums, Millennium Park. We ran them ragged, and are paying for it now. For some reason, this was a very gastro-centric trip for my brother. He had to have a Chicago dog at just about every turn, he wanted to order in a deep-dish pizza (which is a rarity for us), and he absolutely had to hunt down an Italian Beef sandwich. He satisfied that last cholesterol-y craving at 11 in the morning on the way to the Field Museum by stopping off at Al’s #1 over in River North. I can thoroughly sympathize, because a good Italian beef is worth shaving years off your life for. (He already paid the price for it with the constant comments from us like “You’re eating again?”)

Besides showing off the city to a couple of kids from the NY suburbs, it was a good week for cousins to get together, sleep in the same room, get in fights and then forget about them–all the basics of extended family dynamics. My son and my nephew are an exceptionally well-matched pair. It’s a shame they can’t see each other more than once or twice a year. Sometimes this country is too damn big. Maybe Pennsylvania and Ohio can secede, so Chicago and NY can be a little closer.

Before the family arrived, I took a quick trip up to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, to attend a few sessions of their “Festival of Faith and Writing.” I don’t go to many writing festivals, mostly out of a stubborn conviction that I should stay chained to my desk, whether the time is productive or not, rather than spend time talking and thinking about writing. (The way I love the self-denying discipline of writing as opposed to the creative spark, I shoulda been a nun in a grade school.) I was very glad to get out there, though, if only for the chance to meet and hear from people who care passionately about writing, who love the printed word, who have something to say and want to figure out how to say it. This Bi-annual event is very worthwhile, if you ever get the chance to attend.

The main attraction for me was a speech by Michael Chabon, whose estimation in my mind skyrocketed when I read “Kavalier and Clay” and will stay high for quite some time, regardless of what he puts out. (Does that sound like faint praise? It’s not meant to. I enjoyed “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” quite a lot, too. “Summerland” and “Final Solution”? Middling.) His speech was basically the reading of a long essay, “Imaginary Homelands”, included in his new collection of essays, “Maps & Legends”. He was every bit as off-handedly charming as I thought he’d be. I even stood a long time in line for an inscription in my books, something I very rarely do. (I pressed on him a postcard for BARDBALL.COM, and he told me, “I LOVE baseball poetry.” He probably meant “good baseball poetry,” but in any case, maybe he’ll check it out sometime.)

The next morning, he had a Q&A session that was attended by a couple hundred people. His admissions about writing his sophomore novel were very enlightening, and should give hope to all writers, established or not. After the good reception of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” he struggled to come up with something he was happy with. After 5.5 years and perhaps 20 drafts of the book, he still wasn’t happy, and was deathly afraid that the “sophomore jinx” was going to sink his career as it had so many others. He admitted that one of the worst things a writer goes through is the annual meeting with distant relatives at times like Thanksgiving and Passover, and being asked, “So, what are you working on?” and having to say the same thing you’d said the previous year, and the year before, and the year before that. Man, can I relate to that.

At the same time, his first marriage was collapsing. He finally abandoned the book and wrote “Wonder Boys” about a professor having a terrible time writing his second book. When describing his next book to relatives and friends, Chabon said he got sick, sympathetic smiles when he described two young cousins in NY writing comic books as WWII loomed in Europe. Chabon wondered if he was committing career suicide by writing about genre literature, the kind of writing he loved as a kid but that was pooh-poohed in every writing class and seminar in which he dared to bring it up. His idiosyncratic choices were validated when “Kavalier & Clay” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He says he now has the conviction to follow every “bad idea for a book” he has. These types of confessions, from a writer with immensely more talent than me, are like a tonic with a shot of Jameson’s. All writers (at least the good ones) face the roadblocks of doubt and effort and preconceived notions of what is expected of him/her. The only weapons we have against it are conviction and honesty with ourselves. It helps to have talent, too, and a stubborn streak that keeps telling you that your ridiculous idea just might be the best book you’ve ever done.

The Last N’Hood Bar in Wrigleyville

Sad news in the Sun-Times: the last regular neighborhood watering hole in Wrigleyville is closing today. The Nisei Lounge, on the ground floor of Links Hall, is being sold, and will probably be turned into something very special, like the world’s only upside-down sake shooters bar catering to ISU grads.

When I lived at Grace and Sheffield many years ago, before Wrigley Field became a mecca for every drunken frat boy in the country, we used to stop into the Nisei for a drink after games. I remember the Peanut Shell, too, which was a couple doors north, where we were the only non-Spanish speakers. (My roommate and I didn’t own a tv, so we used to rate bars by their willingness to put the Three Stooges on the bar tv at 11 pm. The most compliant taverns would rate a “3 Woob” rating, vocalized with a clear “Woob-woob-woob.” As I remember, the Peanut Shell did it once or twice, the Nisei never did, but we were never very serious in the first place.) These were places of calm where a guy could get a Pabst without feeling like a trendy Wicker Park turd, where people with real stories hung out. There are fewer and fewer honest bars in town, and you can add the Nisei to the list.

For some fascinating history about the place, read Dave Hoekstra’s column in today Sun-Times.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

So the lure of Pennsylvania has brought out more historic moments in political pandering. Last week Hillary Clinton admitted that some of her fondest memories as a child involved hunting and shooting. To quote Monty Python loosely, “I admire all of God’s creatures; that’s why I like to kill ’em.”

What IS it about Pennsylvania? “The Deer Hunter”, which took place largely in the Keystone State, was one of my favorite movies, sure, but is it exerting too strong a hold on political candidates? They’ve already beaten the “Rocky” meme to death, although I half expect someone to don gray sweats and run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, completely by coincidence. Hey, what about “Witness”? Why doesn’t the Amish worldview work its way into their campaigning? Buggy rides? Barn raising? Or would that seem too pandering? (I can easily see Obama in a white shirt with black pants and suspenders, talking earnestly with the elders. I just can’t see him growing a beard.)

In related news, in order to gain more sympathy for his cause in the West, the Dalai Lama has admitted, “Hey, I sometimes sneak a cheeseburger after hours. I may be the incarnation of a centuries-long line of Buddhist masters, and so enlightened as to be free of the cycle of birth and death, but you know, I’m only human.”

And later this week, in an effort to ingratiate himself with fallen-away Catholics, the pope will admit to occasionally rubbing one off. “But only about girls, I want to remind you. Good healthy girls, from the Alps. And no Nazis, either. Uh-uh, brother.”

Before We Go Any Further With This Trend…

I’ve gotta know: How do your pronounce “artisanal”? Is it even really a word? Is the accent on the second syllable, “arTISanal”, in which case it sounds like it came from the mouth of Benjamin Disraeli? Or is it on the third syllable, “artisANal”, in which case it describes, when hyphenated with retentive, a good number of people for whom this is an important characteristic of their food?

I don’t know why this word bugs me, but it does. It conjures images of proud craftsmen with beards, carving the perfect cheese with a chisel. Artisans make things at historic villages that sit on living room mantles in colonial houses. Dowdy, rough, built to withstand another cold New Hampshire winter. Is that what you want in a cheese? Can’t we think of another word? Micro-cheesery? Loca-cheese? Udder-iffic?

(And before you ask, No, I don’t know what’s going on in the picture on this card either, or why it’s included in a children’s card game.)

The Decline of American Letters

The American public is so completely illiterate it can’t even handle the demands of the most vulgar of poetic forms, the limerick. That’s the only conclusion one can reach after reading most of the entries in the Chicago Sun-Times’ “Keep It Wrigley” limerick contest. If you can read more than a dozen of these in a row, then you have the intestinal fortitude to ghost write Paris Hilton’s autobiography.

Never one to miss the chance to slag his competition, the Trib’s Eric Zorn suggested the establishment of the “Limerick Integrity Preservation Society” (LIPS), to stem the rising tide of these miserable excuses for doggerel. His readers’ responses are hilarious, smug, and most importantly, well written. THEY are definitely worth a gander.

As the deadline for the Sun-Times contest approached, I felt the need to tackle this issue myself. For one thing, it might get a little publicity for For another, hey, a free t-shirt is a free t-shirt.

Cadillac? Marathon? Duraflame?
What brand could replace Wrigley’s name?
Maybe Apple Computers?
Heineken? Hooters?
Or BreathSavers, with aspertame?

If Sam Zell couldn’t tell that the name
“Wrigley Field” is revered in the game,
He’s now heard every schlub
Voice the rub of the Cubs:
“Let’s win–but please keep things the same.”

As you might tell, while I wouldn’t be surprised if Zell sold the naming rights (he’d be an idiot not to at least look into it), I’m already kind of sick of the wailing and moaning of the Cubs fans on this, who even in winning seasons often sound like superstitious old ladies. I don’t think the name Wrigley will be discarded entirely, because it would be a huge PR problem for the company that paid for the rights, but also because no one except broadcasters will ever call it anything but Wrigley Field. How many Sox fans ever call the BallMall “US Cellular Field”? They might call it “the Cell” if they’re being lazy or want to sound hip (like when they call their fave radio station The Drive), but 99% of the time, they still call it Comiskey. Which is as it should be.

Cub fans should take control of this situation and make it known in no uncertain terms that they will call it Wrigley come hell or high water. Take the money, and keep the name for themselves. It won’t matter what the name on the big red sign is. They already live in a dream world anyway.

Opening Day

Strange new colors assaulted my eyes this morning as I walked the dog. As if a layer of paint had been scraped off the floor, there were streaks of green amid all the brown and gray on the ground. Shocking, almost lurid. It looks like spring might come after all.

That conclusion was not foregone yesterday, but we were told spring training was over, so Stu Shea and I piled into the station wagon and drove to Detroit for the Tigers home opener against the Royals. We listened to the WXRT morning broadcast from Yakzie’s til 7, then switched over to WFMT’s Opening Day show, on the hope that the host would be able to squeeze in some poetry from BARDBALL.COM. We heard Dewitt Hopper intoning “Casey at the Bat” and Wayne & Shuster’s recording of Shakespearean baseball, but began losing the signal at the Michigan state line, so if he read anything, we missed it. Mists, pelting rains and fog made driving a bitch and hope a luxury. Huge mounds of snow could be seen in the trees by the highway and on the edges of parking lots. If it was raining at Game Time, we were ready to head back, but somehow the Motor City was dry and windless, as if protected by a magic bubble, and the day was about as perfect as one could expect on March 31.

But driving to Detroit always brings lots of baggage with it, for those who grew up there and left. Everything bad about the town has gotten worse in the 25 years I’ve been gone, and going to a ballgame in an abandoned downtown with a lot of drunken white kids from the far suburbs makes me feel like a predatory tourist, like I’m on a cruise ship landing at an impoverished island prepared to haggle with the natives over the price of trinkets, while my drunken buddies do impromptu limbo dances and laugh at themselves. Like on any Opening Day, there was optimism all over the radio. “Downtown is humming,” intoned a mild-mannered host from WJR as he interviewed middle-aged fans. One harpy came on and said, “This is a great day for Detroit. Of course, I live in Macomb County, but I’m still so excited to be downtown.”

That’s the place in a nutshell. Out of 48,000 people, I personally saw 4 black faces in the crowd who weren’t working (5 if you count Jacque Jones).

After gathering up Mardi Gras beads and promotional handwarmers, Stu and I wandered around a bit. He took my picture in front of the big Tiger statue that always reminds me of a chia pet before it gets watered, so it looks like I am indeed a completely predatory tourist. We found our friends and got our tickets. Many thanks to Gary Gillette and his family for letting us have the good box seats down the left field line. After shelling out $4.50 for a kosher hot dog and $8.25 for a beer (it was a Labatt’s, so maybe the falling dollar is even affecting our drinking habits now), we took our seats with our SABR buddies Frank and Rod. For some reason, Mayor Kilpatrick wasn’t asked to throw the first pitch like he was last year. Perhaps if he’d thrown a wild pitch, he’d have a hard time explaining that it wasn’t his hands that actually touched the ball. Probably on advice of counsel, he decided to skip the public appearance in front of his adoring constituents.

The Tigers ended up losing 4-3, but it was a hell of a good game anyway. A couple of sacrifice bunts, a couple of runners thrown out at the plate (one by Brandon Inge from the middle of left field), extra innings. Unfortunately, no appearance by the pitcher with our favorite name, Yorman Bazardo. Throughout the rest of the evening, we turned his name into a euphemism for everything from body parts to perverted sex acts to foreign espionage. It was even suggested that he’s a phantom, a will o the wisp, a fictional character who never shows up. If Samuel Becket were alive today, he’d be scribbling “Waiting for Bazardo.” And certainly bitching about an $8 beer.

After the game we headed up to Hamtramck for some delicious Polish food at “Under the Eagle” (since “Polish Village” was packed with Tiger fans). Afterward the men in the party headed for the Cadieux Cafe for some beer and some Belgian bowling. This was my first time there, though I’ve heard of Belgian bowling for many years. It’s been going on at the cafe for 75 years–in fact, their anniversary celebration is this weekend. This neighborhood was the center of the Belgian-American community in Detroit, which for all I know could fit comfortably into one rowboat. This is apparently the only site in North America were you can enjoy throwing that cheese-shaped hunk of wood at a pigeon feather. We had a marvelous time.

After hours we went back to Gary’s house in the Indian Village neighborhood. I hadn’t seen the houses down there since I was a child. They were drop-dead gorgeous mansions from 90 years ago, on big lots. We sat in Gary’s study with a big roaring fire, drank Harvey’s Bristol Cream and talked about hundreds of things. A lot about baseball, and a lot about civic corruption and urban decay.

Gary and his family have a beautiful house they bought at a bargain basement price. What their lacking is, in his words, “a functioning city.” I read about the city in the papers all the time, but rarely visit. I was shocked by the utter desolation we drove through from downtown to Hamtramck, and Gary told me that that wasn’t the worst of it. Elaborate Queen Anne houses rotting alone, the only structure left standing on a vacant block. Not blocks of boarded up houses, but miles of them. Mildewing piles of planks and shingles the city is too broke to tear down and haul away. I probably bored Stu on the drive back with comments about it. I know the place is a wreck, a corpse, with really no hope of turning around economically. If we erected protectionist barriers tomorrow and insisted that every single thing sold in America had to be built in America, it wouldn’t help that place, with a 50% adult literacy rate and 75% high school dropout rate. I had to wonder what goes through the minds of Gary’s two children, adopted from Poland, who get to live in a nice home in an integrated and involved neighborhood, surrounded by a moonscape, filled not with faded glory, but raped and maimed and left-to-die-in-a-ditch glory.

I had a great time at Opening Day, enjoying good company, great food and the annual promise that Opening Day embodies. I don’t want to wring my hands like a hypocrite. Even though I have vivid and wonderful memories of many parts of growing up in the Detroit area, I left that place 25 years ago b/c it was a one-industry town, and I wasn’t part of that industry. Also, I like city living, and can still afford that in Chicago, with all its pleasures and headaches. The price Gary pays for his big gilded-era house is to drive through the post-apocalyptic landscape of a powerhouse city that put the world on wheels. If a movie company wanted to shoot a thriller in the style of “The Omega Man,” they would scout out locations in Detroit and then decide, No, this is too unbelievable, no one would believe that this place was ever inhabited.